Australian television journalists detained for two weeks in Lebanon

Four television journalists with the Australian broadcaster Channel Nine were released from a Lebanese prison on April 20, 2016, after two weeks in detention, Beirut’s English-language Daily Star newspaper reported.

Police arrested Tara Brown, the presenter of Channel Nine’s “60 Minutes” program, producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Ben Williamson, and sound recordist David Ballment on April 7, 2016. Prosecutors subsequently charged the four with facilitating the abduction of two children caught in the middle of an international custody battle.

The channel said in an article posted to its website on April 7 that it had dispatched the crew to Lebanon to report on a child-custody battle between an Australian woman and her estranged Lebanese husband. The Australian woman travelled to Lebanon to try to bring their children, aged 4 and 6, back to Australia, claiming the father took the children on holiday in May 2015 and never brought them back.

Lebanese security officials accused Channel Nine of paying a child-abduction agency AU$115,000 (US$89,913) as part of a botched operation to snatch the children from a Beirut street while they travelled to school with their grandmother and a maid, according to Lebanese news reports. Lebanese television broadcast security-camera footage on April 7 purportedly showing the children being bundled into a car.

Lebanese prosecutors charged the “60 Minutes” team with abduction at gunpoint and threatening the lives of children. Had the journalists been convicted, they could have faced up to 20 years in jail.

The children’s father, however, decided to drop the charges against his ex-wife and the TV crew, according to press reports. According to London’s Guardian newspaper, the father received “substantial” compensation from Channel Nine for dropping the case. He denied this, The Guardian reported.

A Lebanese security source, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the case, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that Channel Nine introduced the Australian mother to Adam Whittington, a dual Australian-British national who heads a firm specializing in recovering children overseas. He was arrested in Singapore in 2014 for child abduction, the Daily Mail Australia reported.

According to the Lebanese security source and press reports, Channel Nine paid Whittington’s fee and had planned to film the operation for “60 Minutes.” Speaking on April 17 from Beirut’s Baabda prison, where he was awaiting trial on child-abduction charges, Whittington told The Australian newspaper that he had receipts for bank transfers dating back several months proving the channel paid him to carry out the abduction.

Channel Nine declined CPJ’s repeated requests to respond publicly to the allegations they paid the child abduction agency. On April 21, 2016, Channel 9 CEO Hugh Marks announced an internal review of its actions in reporting the story.

On April 21, 2016, Channel 9 CEO Hugh Marks announced an internal review of its actions in reporting the story. After that review confirmed that the channel had paid Whittington’s firm AU$115,000 in two installments and concluded that “inexcusable errors” were made in the production of the program and that “60 Minutes grossly underestimate[ed] a number of factors, not least being the power or willingness of a foreign government to enforce its laws,” Rice was sacked and the other three staffers received formal warnings, London’s Guardian reported on May 27.